ALL ABOUT STEVE
In Man On Wire, director James Marsh documented a remarkable feat of skyscraping balance. His biopic about Cambridge cosmologist Stephen Hawking offers its own kind of high-wire feats, honouring brain and body, head and heart, science and poetry, specifics and universals, all without falling into awards-season clichés of against-the-odds uplift.
He sometimes plays soft, but this is a poignant, probing, often cheekily playful portrait of an ordinary marriage of opposites sustained over decades in extraordinary circumstances.
A physicist Hawking may be, but it’s the chemistry between two hugely likeable chalk/cheese performances that drives his story here. With nuance and immediacy, Eddie Redmayne (Les Mis) exceeds previous promise as Hawking. Despite the likeness, this is no mere imitation. Redmayne brings visceral force to the struggle between expressive longing and a body wracked with motor neurone disease.
Felicity Jones, meanwhile, transcends long-suffering-wife stereotypes. Her Jane Wilde anchors Stephen’s dreamy diffidence and balances out his scepticism about religion’s “whole celestial dictator premise”. Love blooms (with some poetic licence) under fireworks on a starry night; then the going gets tough.
Stephen’s seemingly doomed hopes turn into success and celebrity. Jane’s career and desires, meanwhile, are wrenched by the need to support Stephen and their family. As she yearns and endures, Jones’s delivery conveys her stoical, bottled-up longing with reserved, affecting clarity, especially when temptation looms via kind choirmaster Jonathan (a winning Charlie Cox).
Marsh neither understates the privations and terror of Hawking’s illness, nor overstates the potential for inspirational uplift in his survival. Jóhann Jóhannsson’s graceful score keeps the weepie strings in check, matched elsewhere by Marsh’s impeccable orchestration of multiple grounding support turns (David Thewlis, Harry Lloyd, Emily Watson…).
Complex ideas are neither simplified nor bewildering in Anthony McCarten’s layered script. Hawking’s quest for a “simple unifying equation that explains everything in the universe” provides a flexible through-line; Jane’s religion and Jonathan’s faith in music spin variations on it.
For Hawking, that through-line culminates in a speech about life and hope, met with applause. In lesser films, such a scene might seem coercive. Given Marsh’s fine-tuned appeals to head and heart, any emotiveness is well earned.